We Were Abuzz
I remember that watershed moment when people pointed out what Micah had said about me. I almost wanted to get his words “you are by no means least” tattooed on my arms. The main problem with that is that I don’t have arms, since I’m a town and everything.
Ever since we were given boundaries and names, I’ve come to realize that not a lot was expected of me. Whether in the beginning times when I was called Ephrathah, or in later times when I was called Bethlehem, I knew that when people anticipated something big happening, they tended to turn to places with lots of influence and political power. It’s not that they thought negatively of me; I wasn’t completely unknown, King David was born within my boundaries, after all. So when people did think of me, they thought of me positively. But really, they just didn’t think of me at all. A lot of time had passed between when King David was born and when Jesus came on the scene. I was regarded as kind of a one hit wonder.
So when word came that the Christ would be born somewhere in Israel, we were abuzz wondering which of us would be his place of birth. Some of us smaller towns did let ourselves wonder and imagine what it would be like to host the Messiah’s birth, but deep down we knew that we probably weren’t important enough to be given that honor. When we had these speculative conversations, cities like Jerusalem, Jericho, and Caesarea were relatively quiet – not entirely out of arrogance, but out of that awkward feeling of listening to a bunch of small towns excitedly wonder if they’ll be the site of the Messiah’s birth, knowing there’s no way they’re genuinely in the running. Jericho was the oldest, so that gave her the advantage of experience and maturity. Caesarea was the seat of the Roman government, so maybe the Messiah would be born there to overthrow their oppressive regime. And then, of course, Jerusalem, the center of religious and cultural life for the Jewish people, and most importantly, the location of the Temple. Us smaller towns did see those cities give each other knowing nods during these conversations.
Eventually one of us with extensive scriptural knowledge, I think it was Jaffa, pointed out that the region where the Christ would be born had already been foretold – it would happen in Judea. This disappointed some cities in Samaria and Galilee (sorry Caesarea) but for those of us in Judea, our anticipation grew even stronger. Of course, even with Jericho in the running, we all kind of just assumed it would be Jerusalem, including Jerusalem herself. But if we were honest, in the deep corners of our hearts, some of us smaller spots were fanning dim flames of hope.
Then the day finally came. All of Israel, including me, was shocked (and appalled) that God had chosen me, Bethlehem, as the appropriate host for this pivotal moment. What kind of God chooses such a relatively unimportant town as God’s point of entry into the world? Well, our actual God, apparently. It made me think of that thing Isaiah said about God’s thoughts and ways being different from, and higher, than our thoughts and ways. What seems obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to God. We thought God would choose the most powerful, popular, sophisticated place, but that’s not what God did. God’s choice was unexpected.
I guess that’s why such a bright sign of beckoning was needed – the bright star that arose at Jesus’ birth. When God’s revelation happens in unexpected places, humans seem to need a good deal of nudging to notice it.
My friend Ephesus and I were chatting about this the other day. It might surprise you to know that we are rather good friends, though separated by hundreds of miles. Geographic regions are able to communicate without regard for distance; it has to do with deep underground tree roots, and also mycelium (a network of fungal threads). But the details of how this works are pretty inscrutable to your human minds. You’re just going to have to take my word for it.
So one day Ephesus was listening to me gush on and on, as I probably do more than I really need to, about the exhilaration I still felt at being Jesus’ entry point into the world, and how God can be so delightfully unpredictable.
So then Ephesus says, “You know, not to burst your bubble or anything, but God has been bringing fresh and surprising revelation through all of us in different ways.”
“I mean, of course, yeah, I know, I didn’t mean…” My words came out haltingly. While I guess on some level I knew that if God were to choose to make light shine from an unexpected place in my case, it probably happened for other regions too. But I guess I was just so starry-eyed over my own experience that I didn’t stop to wonder or ask how this was the case for other places. “Okay Ephesus, lay it on me. After all, it’s Epiphany – the day of light and revelation and all that. Enlighten me about how God brought the light in new ways from you.”
“Well, since you asked…okay!” he replied with a gleam in his eyes (or what we as geographical regions think of as eyes; again, it would be almost impossible to explain this in a way humans would be able to grasp). “The thing is, initially the Jesus movement was just among the Jewish people here, since Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish man himself and everything. But eventually it became clear that God, in God’s delightfully unpredictable way, was bringing knowledge of the mystery of Christ to the gentiles as well.”
“Depending on how a household relates to God, I feel a certain vibrational frequency in the earth beneath them. I had gotten used to some of the different frequencies and how the diverse aspects of the earth in the region felt, from the Jewish folks, the Hellenists, other gentiles, and then, the Jesus followers as they came into town. The Jesus followers weren’t going to non-Jewish households initially, but I could feel the vibrations among gentile households were also beginning to match the rhythms of the Jesus way. And get this, it was this unlikely character named Paul, a guy who used to kill followers of Jesus, who ushered in these changes.”
“That’s wild,” I replied. I said this not just to humor my friend, but because this particular aspect of the Creator’s nature was clicking for me in a deeper way. I was in awe. As I thought about my own claim to fame, it wasn’t a surprising, out-of-character move for a more minor city to be the place God would choose to enter the world (I call myself “minor” not with false humility, but just in truthfulness). Rather, Creator delights in the mysterious and beautiful ways light emerges through people, places, and situations that are not expected – the ones that are underestimated. A helpless baby in a space for livestock in a podunk town, for example.
I guess it’s fitting that today of all days, a day followers of the Jesus Way call Epiphany, I’d have an epiphany of my own. Since Jesus’ birth, I’m a little more on the map than a couple thousand years ago. And Jesus’ birth is still a uniquely important moment of God’s self-revelation to the world (I say that not out of arrogance, but again, just in truthfulness). So people expect to encounter God’s light and presence when they visit me. And they do. Still, it makes me wonder about all the unlikely places where God’s light is emerging these days, and all the unexpected people and small towns and babies and hovels that are pregnant with the presence of God, inviting people to witness the light and be transformed.
Take my friend Buford, a town in Wyoming. She is the smallest town in the United States; at least if we measure by population, since her population is zero. Measuring by personality, that’s an entirely different story. A story for another time. And if you’re wondering how a town in the Middle East is friends with a town in the United States, just know that the fungal mycelium communication network is vast.
I’m not saying that just because Buford is small, without being flashy or important in a conventional way, that the Creator would choose her as another place to shine a light of healing and liberation for all people. But I’m not saying that wouldn’t be the location either. I guess I’m just saying that going forward from this Epiphany I want to pay more attention to all the metaphorical Bufords – those mostly ignored people, places, and situations where not much is expected of them, since it seems like that’s where our Creator especially delights in showing up. I invite you to that attention too, if you want to join me.
Rev. Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in Los Angeles. She coaches clergy and church starters with the PCUSA’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities and other organizations, and is director of spiritual formation for Cyclical LA, a local church starting network. Her book Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church (IVP Academic, 2019) examines how Jesus’ healing in the Gospels, too often used in ways that wound people with disabilities, might point a way toward real healing and mutual thriving. In 2022 she did NaNoWriMo for the first time, so who knows what the future will hold!